Nice To Meat You
Words by Cleo Glyde
There is something distinctively heartwarming about a local butcher that a supermarket, in all its cold efficiency, just can’t match. Cuts of meat are placed with a certain pride, reflecting an actual relationship between butcher and farmer. Meat is all they do. And the team who prepare your meat aren’t anonymous, but present at the shopfront to greet you with a smile and inspire your meal ideas. If you’re a regular, they probably know exactly how you like your favourite cuts trimmed and prepared. A neighbourhood butcher is part of the warp and weft of community food traditions, shepherding us through the rituals of Christmas, weekend barbecues and family dinners.
It is telling that the new owner of Kincumber’s Saratoga Quality Meats, Tony Palmer – who moved to the Central Coast in 2012 – was always a big fan. “I truly enjoyed knowing the two brothers who started the butchery that I ended up buying,” he says. “For the eight or so years that I was a customer, it was the place on the Coast with the best meat – pure and simple. It was such a pleasure being able to serve exceptional cuts. I remember how weekend guests would say, “Can we come up and have some of that amazing steak again?”
Saratoga Quality Meats’ commitment to sourcing the best beef, chicken, lamb and pork that Australia has to offer garnered a loyal following from locals all over the Coast, who rewarded their dedication by spreading the word for decades about the butchery with ‘quality’ literally in the title. Then Tony came along…
“I will only take on a project if it lights my fire. Any entrepreneur needs passion as a motivator,” he says. “When covid hit it was a brutal space for frontline retail to be in, and after decades in the business my favourite butcher was ready to sell. As soon as I took a close look I realised that it was an exceptionally good business.”
Tony grew up around food in Hunters Hill, Sydney, having Italian heritage from his mother’s side and an early start in an Italian restaurant, where he worked from age 11 to 18. “I pestered the head chef to teach me his ways and by 14 I was hand-rolling and cooking 300 pizzas on a Friday night for the students at St Joseph’s College; everything was prepared by hand,” he says. Over time, Tony drifted to ‘front of house’ and customer service. “It’s a more natural space for me. I enjoy talking about food and helping people have a memorable gastronomic experience. I ran a restaurant in Bowral and a cafe in Glebe, early in the cafe scene,” he says.
It was Tony’s travels to rural Australia, however that forged his understanding of farming. “I ended up working on a friend’s farm at Currabubula near Tamworth for a few Christmas seasons, jackarooing and getting my hands dirty,” he says. “For a city kid, the opportunity to be on the land was a blessing. I was lucky to fall into the hands of a beautiful old station hand called Ronnie, who taught me how to raise crops and stock well.”
Tony’s background in learning about rural livestock firsthand and working in commercial kitchens has dovetailed beautifully. How does his experience with chefs come into play now that he is a provider? “It helps me handle personality types,” he laughs. “Chefs are born of creativity. Like anyone in a creative field, you’ve got to start with amazing materials and resources. You’re only as good as the food you procure.”
It is Tony’s mission to bring attention back to food’s field and farm origins. “With supermarket culture and plastic-wrapped meat you lose that connection to food. I want to know where my food is from: I care how animals are bred, grazed, born, harvested and treated,” he says.
When he bought Saratoga Quality Meats, Tony was happy to honour the company’s existing mastery and learn the trade. “My philosophy with any business is that you need to learn everything, from washing floors all the way up. This is the head butcher’s field of craft; you are there to learn. I said to the staff, ‘I’m a first-year apprentice – treat me as such. There is nothing that I won’t do’.”
Tony took over in March 2021, at the beginning of the second wave of covid, and gave the business a year of his time. “My job was to learn not just the craft of butchery but how the supply chain works,” he says. “I wanted to understand the background of every cut out there. Where is it being grown? How is it looked after? Are they using any chemicals in its production? You have to do the research.” He is proud that the butchery not only kept every single staff member, but has grown since then. “We had to make sure that whatever Saratoga Quality Meats was going to do, such as the fresh meat that existing customers were used to, was at the very least on par. But we’re really about taking everything we do forward or up a notch.”
Tony’s focus has been on blending existing and new relationships with producers, understanding the different flavour profiles of different regions and cuts and showcasing meals to help busy families. “I am passionate about the ready-to-heat space,” he explains. “Jason, my head butcher, and I have created a whole line of meals that just need half an hour in the oven: shepherd’s pie, beautiful pork and veal Italian meatballs, slow-roasted lamb shoulder or lamb shank hotpots. Customers can have at least one meal decision made for the week.”
The business dances between sourcing excellence and budget concerns, especially in this environment of rising petrol and energy prices. “People love our quality, but can’t afford to be spending $25 a head per meal at home. We work towards a $10 a head meal on the table every night that’s good enough for a dinner party. I mean, you can’t even get out of Macca’s for less than $10 a head now!”
One thing that will never change is Saratoga Quality Meats’ commitment to sausages. “The last thing you change is a secret recipe,” assures Tony. “One of the differences between our sausages and the supermarket version is also that we use the highest quality meat. Our customers won’t end up with a pan full of fat and gristle. We are proud to sell more sausages – including Texan Chilli and up-and-comer Spicy Lamb and Jalapeno – than any other product. They are a gourmet meal in themselves.”
Embracing a sustainable snout-to-tail philosophy means there is a greater variety of ingredients on offer – “we’re big on the offal space”. Saratoga Quality Meats smokes its ham and bacon in house; produces its own pastrami and smoked turkey; and is launching its first turkey bacon. “We like to innovate but not leave the old favourites behind.”
Talking of innovation, Saratatoga Quality Meats has just opened a second store in Erina Heights, next door to BamVino on The Entrance Road. The main store at Kincumber will produce the meat and ready-to-cook range and deliver it fresh to Erina Heights.
It was Tony’s own experience of the Central Coast as a getaway that first made him fall in love with the region and raise his kids there, a classic example of a real-estate investor who starts out thinking that they’ll come up to the Coast from the city occasionally, then ends up doing the reverse.
“I bought a place at North Avoca as a country escape. One Sunday when I was dreading driving back to Sydney, it hit me, I’m doing this the wrong way around! At that stage of my life a big city was becoming a great place to visit, but a less attractive place to live. We made the move and never looked back.”
Saratoga Quality Meats, 43 Avoca Drive, Kincumber, NSW 2251; 3/488 The Entrance Road, Erina Heights,NSW 2260. Call 02 4369 3262, see saratogaqualitymeats.com.au